Churchill as Thucydides

Churchill as Thucydides

As a post-doc at Tübin­gen Uni­ver­si­ty (Ger­many) I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on a paper about Sir Win­ston Churchill’s appre­ci­a­tion of Thucy­dides: did he pos­sess a per­son­al copy of the ancient historian’s His­to­ry of the Pelo­pon­nesian War? I would be very grate­ful for any help. —O.S., Ger­many

Thucy­dides (Wiki­me­dia)

I don’t know if Churchill had a copy of Thucy­dides’ His­to­ry of the Pelop­pon­nesian War at Chartwell (you might check with the house man­ag­er there). But if you are ask­ing if Churchill read and appre­ci­at­ed the works of the great Greek his­to­ri­an, he cer­tain­ly did. What’s more, the writ­ings of Churchill were often com­pared to those of Thucy­dides.

Churchill first read Thucy­dides as a boy at Har­row or Sand­hurst (where it was like­ly in the cur­ricu­lum). In Sep­tem­ber 1913, on a cruise aboard the Admi­ral­ty yacht Enchantress, Churchill and his pri­vate sec­re­tary, Eddie Marsh vis­it­ed Greece and Sici­ly. The Prime Min­is­ter, H.H. Asquith, a great schol­ar of the clas­sics, was also on board, and Marsh record­ed that Asquith “brushed up on his Thucy­dides for the occa­sion.” Churchill and Asquith then held forth on the Pelo­pon­nesian War.

T. E. Lawrence (of Ara­bia) com­pared Churchill’s mem­oir of World War I, The World Cri­sis,with the writ­ings of the Greek: “I sup­pose [Churchill] real­izes that he’s the only high per­son since Thucy­dides and Claren­don who has put his gen­er­a­tion imag­i­na­tive­ly in his debt.”

Sim­i­lar com­par­isons of Churchill to Thucy­dides were made by the his­to­ri­an R. W. Thomp­son about Churchill’s World War II mem­oir, The Sec­ond World War; and, more recent­ly, by Pro­fes­sor Paul Rahe of Hills­dale Col­lege about Churchill’s The Riv­er War (1899).

In 1905 the lit­er­ary agent Frank Har­ris read the man­u­script of Churchill’s biog­ra­phy of his father, Lord Ran­dolph Churchill, writ­ing to Win­ston Churchill: “…it will be as Thucy­dides said of his own his­to­ry a ‘a pos­ses­sion for ever. ’”

In 1931 Oliv­er Lock­er-Lamp­son, review­ing The East­ern Front, Churchill’s final vol­ume of The World Cri­sis, wrote:

No greater writer of the Eng­lish lan­guage exists today. Mr. Churchill is our mod­ern Macaulay; or rather today’s Thucy­dides…. Some day some­one will do jus­tice to this great Eng­lish­man. Mean­time, let us read his resound­ing record and be renewed by the vigour of his patri­o­tism and ver­sa­til­i­ty.

Churchill him­self wrote noth­ing spe­cif­ic about Thucy­dides, but he did quote some­thing Lord Beaver­brook sent him in 1942, before Beaver­brook resigned (much to WSC’s regret) as Min­is­ter of Air­craft Pro­duc­tion, where he had been invalu­able. Churchill wrote:

He also sent me, undat­ed, the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tion from Thucy­dides, which he had per­haps tried in vain upon him­self: “Open no more nego­ti­a­tions with Spar­ta. Show them plain­ly that you are not crushed by your present afflic­tions. They who face calami­ty with­out winc­ing, and who offer the most ener­getic resis­tance, these, be they States or indi­vid­u­als, are the truest heroes.”

—Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, 6 vols., Vol. IV The Hinge of Fate (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1950), p. 74.

By “Spar­ta” I pre­sume that Beaver­brook was refer­ring to Churchill’s crit­ics. The war had been going bad­ly, but Churchill had won a vote of con­fi­dence by 464 votes to 1 on 27 Jan­u­ary 1942.

3 thoughts on “Churchill as Thucydides

  1. Well, I don’t think that Jose­phus was a great writer, though I don’t know Greek, but he was cer­tain­ly a politi­cian to the depths of his soul (as was Churchill, and I don’t mean that to sound deroga­to­ry, as it may in the US), and a high-rank­ing gov­ern­ment offi­cial. If I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, he was a sort of mil­i­tary gov­er­nor, for one of the dis­tricts of the coun­try, and seems to have report­ed direct­ly to the nasi and oth­er offi­cials at the very top.

    Though I doubt that he was either a great writer or a great thinker, he left two books which are earth­shak­ing­ly impor­tant for any­one with an inter­est in that time and place. And con­sid­er­ing the reli­gious and his­tor­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of some things that hap­pened there, that prob­a­bly includes a lot of peo­ple. Thanks.

  2. Jose­phus Flav­ius? Some mind!

    By “high per­sons” Lawrence meant politi­cians. I think what he was say­ing is that very few politi­cians are great writ­ers.

    Arthur Kle­banoff, CEO of Roset­ta­Books, which has just arranged to pub­lish all Churchill’s books elec­tron­i­cal­ly, had this to say:

    “There are only two Amer­i­can fig­ures who have done some­thing com­pa­ra­ble: Theodore Roo­sevelt, who wrote fifty books; and Richard Nixon, who wrote ten. It’s wild­ly unusu­al to have a world leader who is also a writer, espe­cial­ly when he was such an impor­tant fig­ure for six­ty years. And Churchill was an extra­or­di­nary writer. You can open one of his books at a ran­dom chap­ter and read it aloud and you’ll find it’s beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten. He didn’t just win the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture, he won it for a good rea­son.”

  3. “T. E. Lawrence (of Ara­bia) com­pared Churchill’s mem­oir of World War I, The World Cri­sis,with the writ­ings of the Greek: “I sup­pose [Churchill] real­izes that he’s the only high per­son since Thucy­dides and Claren­don who has put his gen­er­a­tion imag­i­na­tively in his debt.”

    What a strange remark! If we’re talk­ing about for­mal his­to­ries in which the high per­son was per­son­al­ly involved, at least Jose­phus Flav­ius imme­di­ate­ly comes to mind. If we’re talk­ing about mem­oirs, there must be zil­lions.

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